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Budget compromise brings relief, for now

Analysis

WASHINGTON - Budget monitors in Washington breathed a sigh of relief, by and large, over Native program funding in the $555 billion omnibus bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush Dec. 26. A compromise had been reached on the fiscal year 2008 budget that provided the Republican president with $70 billion in war funding through February, minus any strings attached; and Democratic-majority lawmakers with an extra $11 billion above the president's request in domestic spending, defined as ''emergency'' funds.

President Bush's eleventh-hour stand against earmarks threatened the compromise, though not the bill itself. A more standard concern with any omnibus spending bill - and this was a particular monster of an omnibus, including appropriations for every federal department except Defense (the only one of 12 annually funded departments to have its spending bill enacted separate of the omnibus) - is that it typically comes together and gets put to the vote without any time for congressional members, their staffs or the public to review it end-to-end. As a result, unexpected provisions can be inserted that may not emerge until hours, days or weeks after passage.

''This is like reading the Dead Sea scrolls,'' said Gregory Smith, a lobbyist with Johnston and Associates. ''You have to put the fragments together to get a coherent picture of what's going on.'' The heavily detailed bill is almost 1,500 pages long.

Of higher priority for Indian country are the final funding decisions enshrined in the budget. In a budget with cuts for everyone, the feeling in Washington's Indian affairs community is that those decisions could have been much worse. ''Thank God we didn't get hurt with large downward numbers,'' said Smith, who spent the day of the final budget deal in discussion with Indian organizations.

Among major budgetary items:

*Native languages received a $2 million boost in funding, from $4 million to $6 million. In December, at a special reception on Capitol Hill, Native language advocate Ryan Wilson, Ietan Consulting Group lobbyist Debbie Ho, and a handful of others gathered to thank Congress for its efforts and to encourage Native people in vigilance, warning the appropriation would be lost if Congress funded the budget with continuing resolutions at the amount of previous fiscal years. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., showed up to ensure them congressional members would argue hard for a compromise budget bill that included Native languages funding. Smith ended up saying, ''I'm sure it's the only federal program that got a 50 percent increase,'' notwithstanding that the level of funding was low to begin with.

*The BIA received $2.29 billion, a minimal increase of .07 percent, or not quite one-tenth of 1 percent, not nearly enough to keep up with inflation. But in what Smith called ''the classic ploy,'' some BIA priorities received significant increases while other programs lost about as much. Construction accounts decreased by $68 million, according to the National Congress of American Indians. By contrast, Public Safety and Justice programs jumped by 12 percent, with $22.4 million going to law enforcement assistance to tribes, $8.6 million to tribal prison construction, $5 million to reduce alcohol and substance abuse among tribal citizens, and tribal courts getting a rare increase. BIA contract support costs receive $149.6 million.

*Congress provides the Department of the Interior with $10 million ''which may be transferred to the BIA'' (an agency of Interior) for Indian land consolidation, and with authorization for expanding the office space of the Office of the Special Trustee. In addition, ''not to exceed $56,384,000 from this or any other Act, shall be available for historical accounting'' to the OST. BIA and OST appropriations ''shall be available for expenditure or transfer'' to trust management and reform accounts, excluding litigation.

*In education, Head Start will get an increase of $13.7 million. The Johnson O'Malley program lost funding from last year, getting $14 million instead of $16.5 million. Tribal college, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian education programs all lost funding, though the detail here shows that the president's budget request sought to zero out the latter two and reduce the Strengthening Tribal Colleges program by $5 million. Instead the college program lost approximately half a million dollars from FY '07, and the Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian programs lost $600,000 apiece. Congress provided $121,690,000 for Indian education under the Elementary and Education Act.

*The Indian Housing Block grant program saw a boost from $624 million to $630 million. The Housing Improvement Program took a steep cut, down from $18.8 million to $13.6 million.

*Community Development Financial Institutions, including the Treasury Department's Native CDFI program, will benefit from a $39.5 million hike to $94 million.

*The IHS, including its facilities construction accounts, increases its budget to $3.4 billion over $3.2 billion in FY '07. ''The Omnibus bill does not include specific recommendations for funding of health facilities construction projects as provided for in the House and Senate proposed bills,'' states the National Indian Health Board. A methamphetamine treatment, suicide and addiction prevention program gets $14 million; urban Indian clinics, $35.09 million; contract support costs, $271.6 million, ''of which not to exceed $5,000,000 may be used for contract support costs associated with new or expanded self-determination contracts, grants, self-governance compacts or annual funding agreements''; and contract health services, $588.5 million.